Sports

NHL Playoffs: Preview, Predictions, Things to Watch in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

The Stanley Cup Final drops tonight in Los Angeles, with the Kings hosting the New York Rangers in Game 1 of Gary Bettman's dream matchup – the cool millions of California against the busy millions of Broadway, splitting the country in half (not counting the South) with American's many TVs acting as the series' battleground.

It really is a fantastic matchup on the ice, too. Intriguing, at least.

The Kings are the odds-on favourite to win, because they're the better team. They play in the better conference. They had to win three Game 7s just to get here, all of them over championship-calibre teams – San Jose, Anaheim, and then defending Cup winner Chicago – and they even had time for two separate three-game losing streaks along the way.

But those facts that prove L.A.'s excellence might just be the reason they lose this series, too, if it happens. Three Game 7s, already? 21 games played? A gruelling back-to-back-to-back against three other Vegas favourites?

L.A. may be favoured, but they might also be exhausted.

The narrative was largely the same in 2011, too, when the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks ran that impossibly tough Western gauntlet through Chicago, Nashville (studly back then), and San Jose before they wound up with a seemingly overmatched Bruins teams.

Boston was ready, though, and Boston was better than pretty much everybody thought. And after dropping the first two games by one-goal margins, the Bruins pushed Vancouver over and took their Cup on home ice, winning four of the series' final five games and the last by a 4-0 margin.

It's unlikely Kings fans will burn down Sunset Boulevard if L.A. loses, like Canucks "fans" did to Granville Street, but history has a habit of repeating itself and the Kings and Rangers both got here because they both played their way here.

They're also the only two teams to ever reach the Stanley Cup Final after opening their playoff run with two seven-game series.

How about that?

1. Three Kings and a King

The Conn Smythe Trophy race has, apparently, come down to three Los Angeles skaters and one New York goalie. (They call tender Henrik Lundqvist 'King Henrik', which explains my headline above – a headline I quite honestly took from some other site I saw yesterday, and I just don't remember which one it was now. Puck Daddy, maybe?)

In L.A., you've got all-world, all-ends all-star Anze Kopitar, who leads the league with 24 points, just over Jeff Carter's 22. Carter, by the way, is another Kings candidate. And then, because he's just so damn good, there's Drew Doughty, too – a guy head coach Darryl Sutter himself said was trending towards becoming the best-ever defenceman he's coached, even over Hall of Famer Chris Chelios.

In New York, it's just one guy. Lundqvist, Henrik.

Sure, I'll listen if you wanna make a case for Marian Gaborik – who the Kings brought over at the trade deadline and now just ho-hum leads the NHL with 12 playoff goals – or Martin St. Louis, another deadline guy sent to New York and who's tale is probably the most personally inspirational story of these playoffs. Oh, and he got a big OT winner.

But if New York wins, it won't be because of St. Louis. Or Ryan McDonagh. Or Rick Nash.

It will only be because Lundqvist somehow found a way to shutdown L.A.'s never-ending wave of shooters, which also includes Justin Williams and rookie Tyler Toffoli.

The King hasn't faced a rotation like Hollywood's yet. Pittsburgh didn't have the Kings' depth, and Montreal didn't have their pop.

If it's New York, he's the only reason why.

2. Can Darryl Sutter outcoach Alain Vigneault... again?

He did it in 2012, if results are an indication.

The Kings battered and bettered AV's Canucks in five games two years ago, when Vancouver was once again a Presidents' Trophy winner and just before L.A. would become the only eighth seed to ever win a Stanley Cup.

In their interviews above, Vigneault said he knew the Kings were the Cup favourites, and seemed to understand why that made sense. (Something tells me he likes the underdog role, a luxury he never had in Vancouver.)

And Sutter did what he does so beautifully – a mix of one-word answers and slightly more eloquent prose, which is only considered eloquent because it's longer than his one-worders.

This isn't just a series between East and West or Kopitar and Lundqvist... it's a battle between two subtle, subdued, and methodical coaches who each have their own style, and (most importantly) who have each willed their teams to this point.

3. Can Rick Nash find the net?

The Canadian Olympian has just three goals in 20 contests in these playoffs.

You'd call it a slump, but Nash doesn't have slumps. Because Nash is always in a slump. That's what makes the guy so infuriating, but also so hard to drop or demote... you just know he's gonna do it eventually, and he'll do it in a big game.

He's still one of the game's most dominant big wingers, but he hasn't shown enough in New York – not this season, and not last season, either. His points and goals-per-game have been fine, and the fact that he's still a 25+ goal scorer no doubt got him his spot on Team Canada.

But he's been a sluggish shadow of his sometimes exhilarating self, and that trough has allowed Jeff Carter to sneak in and become this series' best power forward.

4. Organ Donor

A pretty darn cool 'behind the scenes' from the video vault of the Canadian Press, as the news service went into the booth of L.A. Kings organist Dieter Ruehle.

Ruehle will be there tonight for Game 1.

His tricks include the drum sound effect, the 'Go Kings Go' chorus, and the goal song. He's a DJ and a pianist all at once.

He also says he's friends with the Rangers' organist, and he's working on the terms, conditions, and collateral for a friendly bet... let's just hope it's better than what those team's state governors came up with.

5. So, who wins?

At this point, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who's betting against L.A.

Even though they've already played 21 games – a record for teams through three rounds, and the maximum allowed – New York ain't that much better... they've still played 20.

So I won't make a final prediction for this series, because it gets a little boring when you only have two teams to choose from. I prefer the earlier rounds, where I offset picking obvious winners like Chicago and L.A. with picking bolder ones like Montreal and New York. (It's true! It's true! And I picked the Rangers in six last round, too.)

But I will make a prediction for tonight, for Game 1, and say Rangers 5, L.A. 3.

It's a pure exhaustion thing, and it's a preparedness thing. I think L.A. knows how good Chicago was, and I think they're silly enough to know New York doesn't measure up.

It will lead to an opening upset, and from there the Kings will rebound...

Oh, hell, here's a prediction: New York in six games.

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